Publisert av: ingridmogstad | 11. juni 2011

Genocide – a matter of choice?

Looking into recent Cambodian history one finds a story both terrifying, spine shivering, thus, fascinating. Maybe fascinating is a poor choice of words. But if not interesting, why would we read? The main reason, some would argue, to prevent mistakes and gruesome acts from happening again. Cambodia’s history is indeed fascinating, perhaps mainly because it’s such a meaningless and bizarre phenomenon. Killing not another ethnic group, but one’s own people, is what makes the systematic killings in Cambodia so rare and even more disturbing then a “normal” genocide, in the term’s correct meaning.

The genocide in Cambodia is indeed an extraordinary event, as far as I know. But a brief Google search will show that genocide in its original (and perhaps insufficient) meaning is not rare at all. Rwanda, Yugoslavia, East Timor, Armenia and Germany have all carried out genocides where millions of people have been killed purely for their ethnical heritage.  Browsing history briefly shows that genocide has happened many times, many places, to many people, just in the last century.

In Cambodia’s case, about ¼ of the country’s inhabitants were killed in less than five years. People were driven out of the cities to start from scratch in the countryside. Intellectuals were killed; teachers, historians, mathematicians, engineers and artists. Everybody having anything to do with the former government was killed. Everybody who questioned the Khmer Rouge was killed. Whole families were extinguished. Starvation, torture, sexual abuse and slavery were the rule more than the exception. How could this happen? Whose fault was it? And most important; how can we prevent it from happening again?

There are many factors here, enough for several people to study it for decades. I will therefore only list the stuff I’ve read lately. I know Cambodia was fed up being colonized by France. I know young Cambodian students in Paris, including Ieng Sary, Thionn Mumm, Keng Vannsak and Saloth Sâr (later to go under the name Pol Pot) were looking for a way out, seeing the communists as the only ones being interested to help. It has been questioned again and again why such a thing happened in Cambodia. There are about as many answers as questions, some blaming it on the Americans, some on the French, others the Vietnamese and others again on Cambodian culture in itself.

So when genocide is not just a weird historical niche, what are we? When it has happened many times before and probably will happen again, is there something natural about one people trying to extinguish another? It makes me question myself; would I be able to carry out the same acts under the right circumstances? Am I not a killer just because the God-given circumstances of how, where and when I was raised allowed it?

This autumn I read a book called “How to map arguments in political science” by Parsons (in introduction to political science). It didn’t make much sense, but what the book in essence is trying to do, is to make a typology that divides the reasons for political actions in to four; Structural, cultural, psychological and material.

StructuralSystems that are made in a society, institutions like money or a specific way to do something. CulturalSomething that happens in a certain culture. Women being expected to have long hair, boys being expected to hunt, and so on.
MaterialPhysical circumstances like stone, a house and so on: “I need water, I’ll take that river over there”. PsychologicalSomething that all people would do in the same situation because we are made that way. Like cheating for own benefit if there are no consequences.

This is an oversimplified way to view the world, and that most actions are a mix of two or more of them. That is, however, how soft science works.

My question is however; what if genocide is a natural part of how big groups of people behave? What if it is a psychological weakness (or just a feature) that any society is able to carry out? What if human beings just are like that?  Is the reason to why we keep on repeating history because we forget it from time to time? Or do we carry out cruel acts like genocide as a part of our nature? Can we not help it?

If that is the case I might as well put down my history books, especially if the goal was to prevent it from happening again. If that is the case there is no point in reading uncomfortable, true history.  These thoughts have been thought long ago by thinkers like Immanuel Kant. Without freedom we have no moral. If everything is nature, and we are just robots responding to what our instincts tells us to do, we have no moral and thus no freedom. Prisons and punishment is if this is true, without purpose or effect. It is even unfair, because the violator could not help the action being performed.

I guess one can always save the point and purpose of history by denying that such is the case. One can say that genocide is a result of material or extraordinary cultural conditions, or an unfortunate mix of various historical events. Such as communism being “hip” at the time Cambodia’s angry and suppressed future elite was intellectually formed in Paris in the 1950’s.

I don’t know the answer. But I think that one way we might prevent things like this from happening again is to read, learn and talk about it. We need to come to terms with the past. We need to realize that our history is not always great, and that our forefathers sometimes acted beyond cruelly.

For Norway this means coming to terms with how we treated the Sami people, how many Norwegians accepted and helped the Nazis, and how we treated the Nazi-supporters and their innocent children after world war two.  We’re getting there, slowly, I think.

The Sami people

For Cambodia this means starting to talk about what happened not more than about 30 years ago. It means prosecuting the living violators, and coming to terms with all the gruesome acts being carried out here during the 70’s. This is just partly done, and what is done I will dare to say, has been done poorly. None of my Cambodian friends can say they have actually learned anything about the Khmer Rouge or the genocide from 1975 in school. No doubt the Cambodian society is carrying grief, shame and terrible memories. Many don’t even talk about it with their own parents, and have to uncover their own history by themselves. A new trial is comming up in Cambodia to prosecute the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders, more then 30 years after the killings. Hopefully there will be some justice.

For futher reading about the trial and ECCC, go here.

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